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September 23, 2003

Editors Rock Who Let Weblogs Roll

Web thinking advances and contracts at the Sacramento Bee

1.) Advance

The editorial board of the Sacramento Bee has started a blog to thrash out (some) issues among themselves in a public setting. The authors are six editors whose business is opinion at the Bee. Good editorial pages have always induced argument among editors, writers and columnists. That’s how you test ideas, and figure out if they are cracked.

The Bee’s editorial page has taken a nice next step, by shifting some of its internal debate online. This could have several effects. First, it generates another layer of public comment for the board to sift in, since the blog will draw responses. It creates an arena where the newspaper can argue with itself through the medium of individual voices, which might make the Bee more human, truer to life. It reduces even further the ex-cathedra tone that still afflicts too many editorial pages. (Blogs can but tend not to come from the mountaintop.) The new weblog’s header says: “The views expressed here are those of individual writers, not of the editorial board as a whole.”

Precisely. Of course, group-written blogs have been succeeding online for some time. Crooked Timber is a standout; I also like Philosophy from the (617). The Bee’s innovation is adapting for mainstream use a Web form that first emerged on the margins— the margins of what some (like Glenn Reynolds, lately) call Big Media. Sacramento is medium big, but important.

Editorial board in a politics-driven town does new group weblog in Movable Type. By these gradual means the Web is teaching journalism back to journalists… on the Web. For when you have to decide how to use the form, when you’re sitting at your desk and there are things strange, wonderful and new on your screen, you may have to re-decide what journalism “is” and is finally about, in order to cover the new class of cases that arise when you’re doing it live online. For example, the Bee’s editors will probably start out by exchanging opinions in approximation of an existing dialogue in-house. But as soon as one of them discovers “argument by link,” their idea of what they’re doing may change. To force this moment upon mainstream journalism in setting after setting could be the Weblog’s gift to the newsroom.

2.) Retreat

I am with a host of web critics who objected to the Sacramento Bee’s decision that Daniel Weintraub, author of the highly effective and gutsy weblog, California Insider, will now have to pass his copy through an editor before posting, because of complaints from Latinos and others about something he wrote that was offensive, insensitive or sadly true— depending on where you sit. The relentless Mickey Kaus has the story that other bloggers are buzzing about. See Instapundit and Jeff Jarvis too.

It’s important to state that the Bee was within right and reason to do this… but it’s still a setback for Web elan there, not because Weintraub will be greatly affected by it (I don’t know that will happen) but because there were more progressive and bolder options available when the ongoing blog experiment at the Bee hit a rock. After all, it is a problem for management to receive a complaint it cannot reject out of hand, and then have to admit: we don’t edit Weintraub, we just employ, publish and promote him.

The progressive option for top brass was to say to the staffers in house who objected (“we get edited, who’s editing him?”) and the influential Latinos who complained:

Dan Weintraub is learning that he is edited by his readers, including the angry ones. I want you to write him at his weblog, and I will encourage him to respond at length in that space. But that, of course, will be ultimately up to him. We’ll put your letters on line in full, so they can be linked to. We’re going to look at more editing oversight, but we don’t want to kill this experiment, so help us out and write him something hard hitting and apt. I see this as a major challenge for Dan and his editors and I do want to see how they respond.

Could be I am wrong, but I am not entirely sure the Sacramento Bee realizes that for the moment it is part of the national press, due to the big recall events in California, due to its hustle for the latest news and its deep knowledge of the terrain, due also to the simple fact that it’s available online, and the Web antennae are out, picking up on what’s good. Weintraub is good, and he is pushing the form a little from within Big Media. One gets the sense from reading him that a career’s worth of knowledge is behind his posts.

I once heard Thomas Boswell, the great baseball writer of the Washington Post, explain why he stuck to sports when his achievements could have taken him anywhere. His answer was that when he covered a baseball game, the rules of sportswriting allowed him to use every little thing he learned or thought at the ballpark, and if it didn’t get into his column, it was because he was not a good enough writer that night. In newswriting, Boswell implied, this was not the case. But maybe it is the case, in newswriting by blog…

The Bee’s ombudsman returns to the case, after feeleing the deluge from outraged webloggers. This piece in PressThink is cited, but it’s odd that the Bee’s online operation cannot seem to set a link. Maybe it’s a policy thing. Repeat after me, editors: it’s a Bee plus to be discussed… online.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon adds a sharp, organize-your-mind analysis.

Excellent reported piece by Mark Glaser on the whole blog controversy, via Online Journalism Review. He interviewed Bee staff, including Weintraub.

The Dallas Morning News has an editorial board blog, more advanced than the Bee’s, and it has an item about my post here. Editorial writer Rod Dreher says: “I think it’s important for us on this blog to do ‘argument by link’ as often as possible. It adds to our credibility with readers by letting them know that we’re not just talking through our hats.” The Dallas entry is worth checking out.

Here’s Fresh Potatoes on the Weintraub flap. Here’s Daniel Drezner. Here’s Tom Mangan with an editor’s view (useful).

Here’s an old interview with Weintraub by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell:

Of course, I like the Bee; they published this.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 23, 2003 1:47 AM